Hat-tip to Forbes’ Erik Kain for mentioning this post in his latest article, “Story-Telling In Video Games And The Mass Effect 3 Ending.” I’m not much of an expert on storytelling, let alone a screenwriter. Truth be told, my tastes are very much pedestrian when it comes to film and television. Simply put, I’m someone who will go to a Michael Bay Transformers film and enjoy it. There’s something to be said about those who can appreciate the “simpler things.”
That isn’t to say I can’t appreciate a good story, but considering all the time I dedicate to school and keeping myself informed on the political happenings on both sides of the border, I’m more often than not going to pick a summer blockbuster over a thought-provoking drama. Minimal brain activity required. With that said, I can appreciate those who appreciate the “finer things,” especially those who are trained to analyze a story from the perspective of a writer. With all the analyses I’ve read about Mass Effect 3’s ending, this one written by Eternalsteelfan has to be the best so far.
Here’s the link to the original post at the BioWare Social Network. Considering how well thought out it is, it would be a shame for it to disappear amongst the hundreds, if not thousands of threads being posted in the “Mass Effect 3 Story and Campaign Discussion (Spoilers Allowed)” section. All I have done is corrected the spelling and punctuation. Enjoy!
A. First, a few pet peeves. Tropes are very popular for making generalizations about parts of stories we dislike, but they have a tendency to be overused and misused.
The Crucible isn’t a MacGuffin. The best and most common example of an actual MacGuffin is the briefcase in Pulp Fiction; we don’t know what is in the briefcase and we don’t know how or why it functions, but it’s important because it motivates the characters and drives the plot. Basically, a MacGuffin is important only because it’s important. The Crucible in Mass Effect 3 is an actual plot device (a MacGuffin is a very specific subset of this); we are told what it is and what it’s function is right from the beginning and it’s use in the climax is in line with this.
The Crucible isn’t an example of deus ex machina. Again, we know all along that the Crucible’s function is to stop the Reapers, it’s introduced at the beginning of the story, it’s importance is reinforced throughout, and it’s function during the climax is in line with what is expected. An example of Mass Effect ending with deus ex machina would be: the Reapers win the battle of Earth and are seemingly unstoppable, suddenly, and with no previous justification, an even more advanced race emerges from deep space and destroys the Reapers, saving Earth. The difference is obvious; one is a clearly defined plot device, the other is a magical fix with no precedent in the story.
Being the only time I’m going to talk about tropes, and for humorous purposes only, here are some I find more accurate for the ending: the lack of resolution after all the setting-shifting events, especially the lack of clarity in regards to the future of the setting and it’s characters (including the protagonist and in some cases the antagonist force) may be considered no ending, the Reaper-God-Child and unexpected side effects of the Crucible may be considered diabolus ex machina, and the sudden shift of themes from hope and fighting the impossible fight to that of true art is angsty can be seen as an example of a sudden downer ending. I’m certain there are more we can shoehorn as applicable, but this is as far as I’m willing to go into tropes.
I want to iterate that I dislike how much we over analyze tropes and assign them as labels to similar and over generalized devices and themes. Stories are usually divergent enough from other stories that generalizing aspects of them with tropes rarely do them justice and are ambigous enough that what tropes a story actually uses are debatable. I only addressed the aforementioned devices of deus ex machina and MacGuffin because they are venerable and distinct enough that their usage in reference to Mass Effect 3 is clearly wrong. TL;DR: tropes are convenient but our time is better spent looking at the specifics of a given story.
B. The resolution of Mass Effect 3 falls short for many reasons. More than I’d care to get into, truth be told, so I’ll try to punch on at least some of the major failings through the eyes of a screenwriter.
1. The ending feels jarring and out-of-place and there is little closure, this is a sympton of the ending failing to live up to what we come expect from the story. As I’ve previously said, “Mass Effect is a conventional story with conventional expectations”. A conventional story, almost all stories, follow a pretty standard plotline: Introduction – Ascending Action – Climax – Descending Action – Resolution. In film we break it up into 3 acts, roughly: the first act is the introduction, the second act is the rising action and longest act of the story, and the third act is the climax and resolution.
Mass Effect 3 and the previous games follow this plotline both as individual stories and in the grand scheme of things as a trilogy (a trilogy is basically the three act structure writ large), that is until the final moments of 3. For reference, The battle for Earth is the climax of the series and the run across no man’s land to the Citadel beam is the climax of the specific game; with this in mind, the Citadel sequence is the final part of the descending action and the resolution for both the game and series, the part where the antagonist is finally defeated, the themes and dramatic questions are answered, and the loose ends are tied. Or rather, it should be. After the defeat of the Illusive Man (the antagonist role is somewhat muddled and blurry towards the end of the story, more on that briefly), the protagonist has reached his goal, the defeat of the Reapers is at hand; conventionally, this is where the protagonist would succeed, the Crucible fire, and the Reapers destroyed. Instead, the story grows convoluted (once again, this is supposed to be the resolution) at the height of the scene by jarring us out of it with the bizarre, dreamlike sequence of Sheperd’s ascent on the magic platform and the introduction of an ancient and seemingly god-like form who expounds the final choice between three options, all presented symbolically in appearance and action: one which mirrors a co-antagonist’s desire which has been reinforced throughout as wrong and contradictory of the protagonist’s; one which is downright bizarre and is almost completely outside the scope of the game’s main themes save for being somewhat in line with the primary antagonistic forces’ goal; and one which accurately mirrors the protagonist’s goal from since the beginning. The results of these choices vary and are wide-reaching, creating a massive upheaval of the story world, while being unclear. All of the characters and the entire setting are left to an uncertain and sometimes confusing fate.
Just looking at what I’ve typed, it’s apparent this is not a resolution. New information is introduced throughout the entire sequence rather than tying loose ends. New information shouldn’t be introduced in a resolution unless it directly resolves something or is quickly resolved itself; definitively, it’s the opposite of what a resolution is. In layman’s terms, this is what makes us feel like there are more questions than answers.
The fate of the characters and the final destination they reach in the story are crucial to the resolution, especially on the scale of a trilogy. During the ascending action, right before the climax of the no man’s land run, we are given a send off from all of the characters; this is both out-of-order for a conventional plotline (more fitting the descending action rather than ascending) and diminished by the implications of the ending. Ultimately, it is through the characters that we most directly identify with the story and find the meaning, the lack of resolution in this regard is especially unsatisfying.
The resolution is where the audience is supposed to find the tale’s “ever after”, be it happy or sad. Mass Effect 3 completely lacks any sense of “ever after”.
2. Video games, like film, are a visual medium; the ending tells us what happens rather than shows us what happens. This is easy to overlook but very important. Visual mediums for story are all about what we see. Another cardinal sin of storytelling committed during the ending is the description of, and differences between, the options in the final choice are almost all conveyed through exposition. The cinematics themselves, what we actually see, are extremely similar and all the implications of the choice we make are conveyed through what the exposition had told us. This is very poor storytelling and worse still to be considered the resolution.
3. Ambiguity, lack of clarity, plot holes. Relating to the previous points, the ending is excessively ambiguous and unclear. With only unclear exposition before the choice and without sufficient data presented afterwards, many situations are unaccounted for and either lack clarity at best or appear as plot holes at worst. The crash landing of the Normandy is a clear example of this ambiguity, both in it’s plausibility and implications for the fate of the crew.
4. Nothing is gained by breaking convention and attempting to make the ending enigmatic or profound. Assuming this was the writers’ goal, this is another failing. Some believe, myself included, that the writers’ tried to use the jarring impact of an unconventional, imperfect ending to hammer home a message or theme (presumably: pre-destination, the uncontrollable nature of fate, and the individual’s limited ability to impact the world). This, however, comes at the cost of the story and the audience’s pleasure, a cost that is far too high for the nature of storytelling.
5. The resurgence and emphasis on The Illusive Man during the resolution as well as the lack of interaction with the Reapers and, more specifically, Harbinger, detracts from the Reapers as the antagonist. A lot of people expected a “boss fight” of sorts or a closing discussion with Harbinger at the end. This is a perfectly understandable and legitimate expectation. During the climax, we are almost defeated by Harbinger, the avatar for the Reapers as antagonist, however, during the resolution, it is the indoctrinated Illusive Man that takes center stage. Though he unwittingly is an assisting force for the Reapers, he is not directly representative of them, merely their influence. TIM’s role is more fitting that of an obstacle to be overcome during the rising action.
The prominence of The Illusive Man as the final foe to be overcome detracts from the overall threat and importance of the true antagonist, the Reapers.
6. Shepherd is not a tragic hero. A common debate I see is between people who think there should be a happy ending and people who think such an ending would be out-of-place or impossible, sometimes referring to Shepherd as “tragic”. The simple fact is, Shepherd has no tragic flaw nor does he make a tragic mistake; had such a tragic characteristic existed, it could be a foregone conclusion he would die. Overcoming the Reapers may be an impossible task, but the impossible is routinely overcome in the Mass Effect trilogy and other epics. As is, there is nothing in the story that would railroad Shepherd towards an inevitable demise, the difficulty of his task makes his death likely, but there’s nothing that should remove the possibility of a happy ending. This may be why many people want a “happy” or “brighter” ending, there’s no setup nor payoff to Shepherd’s death and without those it may feel cheap; storytelling is all about setup and payoff.
For an example of a good tragic hero, look no farther than Mordin Solus. His tragic mistake was the creation of the genophage. When a desperate need for krogan intervention arose and the genophage was the reason they refused, Mordin fulfilled his tragic role by sacrificing and redeeming himself. There’s a big setup for the genophage throughout the series and Mordin’s involvement is set up in the second game as a huge internal conflict for him. In three, this all pays off beautifully with either his redemption or brutal murder at Shepherd’s hands before he can succeed. This is proper execution for a tragic character. From what I’ve seen, this is one of the most beloved and well-received storylines in the game; compare that to the ending’s reception.
These points were written as a stream of conscious, I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve missed or didn’t feel like going in-depth about, but I think those are some of the most important ones.
C. As I was writing this I read the Final Hours thread containing comments from Mac Walters and Casey Hudson as well as Walters’ scribbled notes for the ending. Honestly I was taken aback.
Judging the content Hudson cut based on his feel for “the moment”, I’d say his feel for emotional beats and his judgement of what was expendable for story economy was atrocious. The first Mass Effect was inundated at times with exposition and had very poor economy, this ending, on the other hand, is something of an opposite with not nearly enough information.
Walters’ notes scrawled across loose leaf disappointed me. The ideas are clearly not fleshed out at all, strictly drawing board material, the execution we see in-game is indicative of that. “Lots of speculation from everyone” is somewhat repulsive, as if providing an unclear, poorly planned ending that leaves your audience unsatisfied and grasping at straws for answers is somehow good storytelling. It gives me the inclination that the ending really was just for publicity.
I hope it continues to backfire.
Anyway, I’m off. Any interest or questions or if you want to pick my brain about storytelling, we’ll call this a work in progress.
As of now, Eternalsteelfan is still taking questions from Mass Effect fans on the various points he’s made in this examination. Even if you’re not upset with the current endings, I would recommend asking Eternalsteelfan a question or two anyways as it doesn’t hurt to get his take on what you feel is right with Mass Effect 3’s endings.
HOLD THE LINE!
Once again, for those who haven’t already liked ‘Demand a better ending to Mass Effect 3’ on Facebook, if you feel as myself and thousands of other Mass Effect fans do about Mass Effect 3’s endings, do it. Also, I recommend supporters of the ‘Retake Mass Effect’ movement go to ‘Retake Mass Effect’ and make a donation to Child’s Play. It’s for a very good cause.